September 1, 2005

Herdt Urges Increase In Farm Aid to Africa

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Students crowded into 135 Emerson Hall yesterday afternoon for a lecture by Prof. Robert Herdt M.S. ’63, applied economics and management, on “Fads, Fashions, Fluctuations and Functionality in Foreign Aid,” the first in a seminar series on “Agroecological Perspectives for Sustainable Development,” sponsored by the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD).

The series is being offered as a one-credit course, though it is open to the public.

“The purpose of this series is to bring speakers from different departments throughout the University to discuss perspectives on international development and poverty alleviation,” said Cally Arthur, communications manager for International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “These subjects inevitably revolve around agriculture.”

Herdt, who has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Minnesota, began his presentation by exposing what he termed a “Silver Bullet Syndrome” that exists among economists and development sociologists: “Everybody’s searching for the one magic solution for development,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.”

Herdt placed most foreign aid into six primary categories: Public Services, Business Services, Commodities, Macroeconomic Adjustment, Relief and Production – the last of which includes agriculture as well as energy, forestry, fisheries, mining, industries, and transport and storage. He showed that aid to agriculture had declined from 17.5 percent of U.S. foreign aid in 1980-81 to less than 4 percent by the end of the century. Over roughly the same period, agricultural aid from all countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell from $9 billion to less than $5 billion. Herdt blamed this on agriculture’s “failure to have a compelling story.”

But for all the banter, does agricultural aid really work? Exceptionally well in most cases, said Herdt. He referenced a number of studies that showed high rates of return on agricultural investments in developing countries. Herdt also emphasized the importance of four intangibles to which he believed a good percentage of foreign aid should be allotted: technology, markets, human capital and institutions.

Given the talk’s focus on economic development, much of it centered on Africa: “The policymakers, most of them economists, still don’t seem to be convinced that agricultural development is necessary for Africa to pull itself out of poverty,” Herdt said. “Africa is also a continent of relatively new nations in which civil society is still building, and revolutions are frequent. It’s a problem. If people are shooting at each other, you can’t have development. … I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have things like the U.N. Millennium goals, the banner that Kofi Annan’s been carrying, but if something isn’t done better, that’s what they’ll remain: goals.”

The talk went over well with students, most of whom were attending for course credit:

“With all the talk by the G8 over the summer about increasing aid, it’s very important to pay attention to where that money is going and whether it’s actually helping the people it’s intended to help,” said Kaitlyn Van Arsdell ’08. “So much literature has been published lately by social scientists and economists on how best to reduce poverty. Our generation faces huge issues of stratification and sustainability. If we want to live in a healthy, peaceful world, it’s crucial that we get involved in finding the best, most responsible policies and strategies.”

The second seminar, “Farmer Field Schools: A Plant Pathologist’s Experience,” will be taught on Sept. 7 by Associate Prof. Rebecca Nelson, plant pathology. The CIIFAD Seminar Series is cosponsored by The Management of Organic Inputs in Soils of the Tropics Group (MOIST), the Ecoagriculture Working Group, the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources. Seminars will be held Wednesdays from 12:20-1:10 in 135 Emerson Hall.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer